A quick peek at the NFC North’s strength of schedule shows a striking similarity to the NFC East’s 2022 schedule. There is a very good chance there will be three NFC North representatives in the playoffs come December.
Kings of the NFC North Jungle, the Lions
“The fighting Dan Campbells” as some call them face the 20th strongest strength of schedule in 2023 based on 2022’s results. Only the Packers face easier opponents in their division.
The Lions have nine draft picks in 2023 and four of them are in the first 55 picks. The first pick is the sixth overall selection. They’re in prime position to add someone who will make a big impact in their rookie season (like Aidan Hutchinson). Alternatively they could even trade down and acquire extra picks. The sixth pick was originally the Rams’ pick that the Lions received in the Matthew Stafford trade. They also have the 18th pick. Ignoring the wealth of draft capitol they’ve amassed, nine free agents have signed up to join Dan Campbell’s kneecap biters.
The Lions free agent class is headlined by running back David Montgomery and defensive back CJ Gardner-Johnson. Montgomery averaged 4 yards per attempt last season and played every game as he shared time in the backfield with Khalil Herbert. Quarterback Justin Fields also lightened the load on both backs as he ran 160 times. In Detroit Montgomery will share carries with D’Andre Swift and maybe Craig Reynolds who averaged 4.4 yards per carry in 2022.
The player friendly environment Dan Campbell has developed in Detroit has seen veterans Marvin Jones Jr., Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Graham Glasgow all return to a team that was struggling when they left.
One possible stumbling block is the turnover on the coaching team. Duce Staley has left to join Frank Reich’s revolution in Carolina. Scottie Montgomery (D. Montgomery carrying the ball, S. Montgomery coaching the backs, that won’t be confusing) has taken over the role of assistant head coach and running backs coach. S. Montgomery has head coach experience at East Carolina and in 2022 he was the Colts running backs coach.
Tight ends coach and passing game coordinator Tanner Engstrand is now just the passing game coordinator and former San Diego Chargers draft pick Steve Heiden is the new tight ends coach, Heiden, who is almost as big as Dan Campbell, spent the last three seasons as the tight ends coach in Arizona.
Brian Duker has become the defensive backs coach, but as he was coaching the safeties last season that seems more of a change of syntax than a change of job.
Steve Oliver is now an assistant offensive line coach having previously worked as a quality control coach.
By far the two most exciting coaching appointments are Shaun Dion Hamilton and J.T Barrett. 27-year-old, former Alabama player Hamilton was on the Lions playing staff until August last season, he’s now the assistant linebacker’s coach.
Barrett is 28 years old and a former Ohio State quarterback, he’s now the assistant quarterback’s coach. During his playing days at “the” Ohio State University Barrett had the misfortune of being coached by Urban Meyer and Ryan Day. He should have learned how not to coach players and how not to interact with people from those two.
The Good News Bears
Now, they might have only won three games last season, but that in itself was a victory. When Matt Eberflus took over as Bears head coach it was widely believed they were beginning a long rebuild. If they hadn’t won a game in his first season nobody would have been shocked. Despite finishing the season bottom of the pile “Da Bears” showed promise, especially on offence. 22 Bears players hit the injured reserve list in 2022 and that certainly didn’t help.
Chicago have 10 draft picks and four of them come in the first 64 picks. They also have a quarterback who lead the league as he averaged 7.1 rushing yards per carry last season. Khalil Herbert was fifth on that list, averaging 5.7 yards per carry and free agent signing D’Onta Foreman averaged 4.5 yards per carry last season in Carolina. They also signed Travis Homer, who played 49 games in four seasons for the Seahawks, probably as a third down back. So that’s the running game sorted
The defense was the root of their problems in 2022. Last season the Bears ranked 32nd as they allowed 31 touchdowns last season and 31st having conceded 2674 rushing yards. After Roquan Smith was traded to the Ravens they allowed 32 points per game in the last nine games!
They’ve replaced Smith with Tremaine Edmunds in free agency though, 24 year old Edmunds made 565 tackles in his five years in Buffalo. He also made five interceptions and 6.5 sacks. The 6 feet 5 inch Edmunds has been playing in Leslie Frazier’s 4-3 hybrid defense since he was drafted. He should fit Eberflus’ defense more than Smith.
The Bears also signed linebackers TJ Edwards and Dylan Cole in free agency. Edwards made 159 tackles in 2022, 7th most in the league and Cole had his best season as a Titan in 2022. They also bolstered the defensive line as Andrew Billings comes in to replace Armon Watts and defensive ends Rasheem Green and DeMarcus Walker arrive from Houston and Tennessee respectively. Under Lovie Smith Houston played a “Tampa 2” defense which is a kind of adaptation of the 4-3 defense but the Titans run more of a 3-4 scheme. DeMarcus Walker may end up lining up at defensive tackle in Eberflus’ scheme next to a bigger nose tackle like Donavan Jeter or Billings.
The defense should be vastly improved from last season as they acquire pieces more suited to Eberflus’ plan. With DJ Moore and Robert Tonyan added to help out Justin Fields the Bears and a schedule featuring opponents who only won 50% of their games in 2022 the Bears are poised for a playoff run.
The NFC North Wildcard Vikings
The Vikings have just five draft picks and only $1.5 million in cap space at the moment. But they have already signed 14 players in free agency, and they look to have built a dynamic defensive front to help out Za’Darius Smith. Eight of those signings were part of the team last season but seven of 2022’s roster have left.
Some real cornerstones of the Vikings defense were amongst those who left. Patrick Peterson has headed to Pittsburgh, Pat P only spent two years as a Viking, but he made 111 tackles. He also had six interceptions and last season he played 1,189 snaps including 17% of the team’s special teams’ snaps. In total three of the Vikings cornerbacks have left, Duke Shelley has signed for the Raiders and Kris Boyd has joined the Cardinals. Shelley only started 5 games for the Vikings last season, but he did play 52% of the defensive snaps and 20% of the special teams’ snaps. Boyd on the other hand played 82% of the special teams’ snaps and just 3% on defense.
Byron Murphy has gone the other way, from Arizona to Minnesota and he’s definitely a defensive upgrade. Murphy played all the Cardinals defensive snaps in 2022 allowing a passer rating of 103.1 when targeted. Boyd’s was 127.1 in 2022.
29-year-old defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson also left Minnesota, only Harrison Phillips played more snaps on the Vikings defensive line in 2022.
The final change on defense sees Troy Reeder join from the Chargers and Eric Kendricks going the other way. Reeder is 28 and Kendricks is 31, so in one way the Vikings won this one. But in his single season as a Charger Reeder didn’t start a game. He only made 11 tackles in 2022, playing 6% of the Chargers defensive snaps, Kendricks played 1,174 total snaps last year, making 137 tackles and a sack. He’s a huge loss in Minnesota.
Another veteran, Adam Thielen, has left too. He’s joining Frank Reich’s revolution in Carolina. Minnesota could be looking to trade or release Dalvin Cook too. The running back is due to earn more than $10 million this season. Replacing so many experienced voices in a dressing room with younger, or rookie players screams transition season.
The NFC North’s “Give it a Year” Team, The Packers
Continuing the theme of veteran wide receivers moving to a new team, Allen Lazard has taken his talents to Rutherford New Jersey (not quite as glamorous as South Beach, but here we are). As part of the eagerly anticipated Aaron Rodgers trade that is yet to happen. Nathaniel Hackett is he Jets offensive coordinator now too to plicate the notoriously fussy quarterback. But somehow Rodgers isn’t a Jet yet.
Assuming that he will be eventually the Jordan Love show will probably come good by the end of the season.But the start is looking decidedly rocky, Love has only thrown 83 passes in the last two seasons.
Lazard isn’t the only Rodgers acolyte to leave Green Bay, Robert Tonyan is now a Bear and rumour has it that Rodgers would like David Bakhtiari to be his left tackle in New York too.
Defensively they’ve lost Krys Barnes to the Cardinals, but he only played six games for the Packers in 2022. He injured his ankle in the first game of the season and didn’t return until the 5th of November. Two defensive ends have left too. Dean Lowry has joined the Vikings, so that’ll make for two fun divisional games! Jarran Reed has returned to the Seahawks. Lowry played 53% of the Packers defensive snaps last season, only missing one tackle. Reed started 14 games. He only made 2.5 sacks, but that was fifth on the Packers defense in 2022. Reed played 66% of the Packers defensive snaps and 16% of their special teams’ snaps.
Green Bay only added two players in free agency. They’re waiting for the Jets and Rodgers to iron out some details. They’ve brought in long snapper Matt Orzech who was at the Rams in 2021 and 2022 and free safety Tarvarius Moore. In his four seasons in San Francisco 26 year old Moore started 13 regular season games.
The Packers will also have four new coaches this season, although one is “senior analyst” Tim Lester. Lester attended college with Matt LaFleur. Actually, Lester was starting the quarterback at Western Michigan and LaFleur was his backup. Two of the other newbies are “quality control” coaches but there’s a new passing game coordinator.
Greg Williams arrives from Arizona, 47-year-old Williams is a former wide receiver and safety. He played at the University of North Carolina and in the first iteration of the XFL. He began coaching in the NFL in 2008 as the assistant linebackers coach for the Chargers, he’s
Like the Vikings the Packers are a team in transition. But transitioning to a new quarterback and passing game coordinator seems like something that will take longer to adjust to.